Mitigating the harm of record breaking climate events

By Neil Sahota, Artificial Intelligence Advisor to the United Nations
Climate Impact Calculators: The promise of AI in driving positive environmental impact

Just five years from now, climate scientists forecast that it may be too late to reverse the devastating effects of climate change. Is it the worst case scenario? Let’s certainly hope so, but it’s a sign of the challenges we face as a global society. Psychologically, humanity is great at addressing the fast-moving, immediate threats. We see a brush mysteriously shaking in front of us and we stand ready to deal with the danger. However, the slow moving, long-term threats –  well, we are terrible at handling that. Just consider the initial stages of the COVID-19 pandemic. That is why we have done a poor job handling issues like climate change even though the worst case scenarios of a point-of-no-return in 2027 were recognized as far back as 2016. While acting as collective humanity has been stagnant, we have a powerful ally in artificial intelligence (AI) to combat these threats.

Throughout human history, we have been reactionary to major events. The challenge is that change is happening faster and faster to the point that reacting to something is no longer an effective strategy. Even worse, we have had a long runway to make these reactions while discounting the possibility of black swan or even green swan events. Unfortunately, we are at such a global scale and impact that we cannot make radical, global changes quickly to respond to these changes. Consider the rapid expansion of data centers to support cloud computing or the rapid expansion of transportation to support the supply chain needs of delivery from online orders. Moreover, daily human life elements  are the major drivers of climate change such as the consumption of fossil fuels, creation of waste , deforestation from human expansion, agriculture to feed a growing population, power plans for rapidly expanding energy needs, and so forth.

This is where the “cold, calculating” machines of AI come into play to help us. According to a recent World Economic Forum study, leveraging data and AI digital solutions could reduce global greenhouse gas emissions by 4 percent by 2030. This spans the development of more energy efficient buildings to optimised farms and food production to better anticipation of green swan impacts. With the ability to consider millions of data points, AI created better predictive models on the likelihood and impact of extreme weather, particularly wildfires and ocean flooding.

AI has also enabled precision climate impact by enabling environmental impact at an individual level. That means we have a cognitive digital assistant that analyses our decisions at a holistic level of climate impact. Say you decide to eat plant-based “meatballs” with your pasta for health and environmental reasons, knowing that cattle are a huge contributor to climate change. On the surface, this seems like a smart, sustainable decision, however, we do not know where that plant-based protein is sourced from. This is where these AI climate impact calculators come in handy. Depending on where you might live, that plant-based protein may be produced a thousand miles away. Suddenly, the transportation and refrigeration cost and climate impact are greater and may negate the benefits we perceive from eating these foods.

While this may seem like one small decision, let us reflect on how many “small” decisions we make on a daily basis that add up in the aggregate from water usage when showering to charging mobile devices at peak times of electricity usage.. This is where AI has the greatest impact for us. Certainly we are using AI to develop more green technology and innovative ways to take on climate change.  Though if we as a society do not change some of our behaviors to be more eco-friendly, then our ability to combat climate change is muted. This is where AI is our strongest ally because not only can it help us understand the impact of micro-decisions, but it can also help us quantify the impacts of our everyday decisions. Knowing the impact of daily lifestyle choices and their impact, these AI climate calculators are the true potential and promise to enable each one of us to be a conscientious climate change warrior. 


Neil Sahota is an IBM Master Inventor, United Nations (UN) Artificial Intelligence (AI) Advisor, Faculty at UC Irvine, and author of Own the A.I. Revolution. With 20+ years of business experience, he works with organisations to create next generation products/solutions powered by emerging technology.


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